Comments on the NITI Aayog’s draft ‘Guiding Principles’ for the ‘Regulation of Online Fantasy Sports Platforms in India’

On 5th December 2020, NITI Aayog released a draft for discussion titled ‘Guiding Principles for the Uniform National-Level Regulation of Online Fantasy Sports Platforms in India’ (“Draft Report”), seeking comments from different stakeholders of fantasy sports industry. The Draft report hits two birds with one stone; firstly, it proposes to establish a single Self-Regulatory Organization (SRO) for Online Fantasy Sports Platforms (OFSP) so as to enable ‘light touch’ regulatory framework, secondly, these guidelines also act as a ‘regulatory sandbox’ for OFSP.  

A brief summary of our submission to NITI Aayog with comments, concerns and recommendations in relation to the Draft Report are as follows: 

Recognition for all categories of “pay-to-play” online games

Apart from online fantasy sports, there are many other pay-to-play format of online games like rummy, cricket simulation etc. that are offered using the same digital interface through which they offer online fantasy sports contests. For instance, Paytm First Games and Mobile Premier League, to name a few. We have raised the concern that governing only OFSP could result in complex situation for online gaming industry in general and such all-in-one online gaming platforms in particular. We recommend that by virtue of these guidelines all “pay-to-play” formats of online games should be recognised.

Specify definition and extent of the term ‘fantasy sports’

The Draft Report neither defines the term neither ‘fantasy sports’ nor enlists activities that might constitute the same under the proposed framework. The framework proposes that “all formats” of fantasy sports offered by OFSP must be skill-predominant. There is no clarity whether ‘free to play’ formats, which doesn’t involve any stake of players and are risk-free, are also required to be game of skill. In our comments, we have formulated an element-wise definition of ‘fantasy sports’ wherein we have specifically pleaded that the definition should exclude free to play format specifically from the definition of fantasy sports.

The proposed framework requires a platform to take approval from SRO if offering a fantasy format different from judicially determined game of skill. There are three HCs which have analysed the Dream 11’s format as game of skill and no definitive criteria have been laid down by any of them for determining whether a fantasy format is game of skill or not. Therefore, we believe that ‘judicially determined’ format of fantasy sports is subjective and the framework should itself provide objective test in the Draft Report itself.   

Uniform and diverse representation in the SRO

The Draft Report prescribes that only a fantasy sports industry body, which have as members OFSPs with registered user base, in aggregate, equivalent to at least 66 percent of registered users of online fantasy sports in India, could be recognised as SRO by the Government. This is an absurd eligibility criterion as the concentration of users is not uniform across OFSPs. In such a scenario, there is a risk of disadvantage to the interests of OFSPs with small user base.

The proposed model of membership of SRO leaves aside many other participants of the fantasy sports industry like advertisers, payment service providers, consumer bodies etc. We recommend that the eligibility criterion for recognition of an industry body as SRO must be based on diversity and number of members rather than the strength of user base of its members. This will lead to a holistic and pervasive regulatory framework.

Requirement of minimum safeguards in the organizational framework of SRO

Three internal bodies have been envisaged within the proposed SRO: an independent oversight board, a grievance redressal mechanism and an evaluation committee. We recommend that a governing body, in addition to the internal bodies, must be constituted. Further, basic principles and minimum safeguards must be incorporated in the framework to ensure independence of oversight board, transparency in working of grievance redressal body and evaluation committee, etc.

Clarity on how safe-harbour exemption will be implemented

The guiding principles proposed in the Draft Report grant safe-harbour exemption or a criminal immunity to all the member-OFSPs of the SRO. As “gambling and betting” is a subject of the state list, it is recommended that a clarificatory note be released by the NITI that fantasy sports be construed as a class apart from gambling rather than exception. In short, fantasy sports should be governed by the Union using its residuary powers under Entry 97 of List I.

(Authored by Eukti Garg, Volunteer-Researcher at LawforIT, with inputs from Aryan Babele)